When David France was in the middle of production of his film “How to Survive a Plague” (Sundance ’12 and an IFC Films/Sundance Selects release), which looks at the AIDS activist group ACT UP from its creation and most robust years through to challenges launched by the Treatment Action Group, he was made aware that former New York City mayor Ed Koch had caught wind of the film.
Koch is a particularly interesting character. He was mayor from 1978 to 1989, during the first several years of the AIDS epidemic, and he was the target of many New York AIDS activists’ ire. In conversation with Indiewire, France repeated two chants he heard in the footage of ACT UP events that both held Koch accountable for the city’s policies and questioned the bachelor’s sexuality, which was in question throughout his political career: “C’mon Ed, honey — spend the money,” and “New York AIDS care is ineffectual. Thank Ed Koch, the heterosexual.”
Koch, it has been surprising for many to find out, has begun a post-politics career as a movie reviewer. He’s a critic for the Yonkers Tribune and, for several months last year, he had a video review series. It is perhaps even more surprising to discover that Koch reviewed “Plague.” But most surprising is what he said (or, rather, didn’t say).
Koch wrote his review without a single mention that he was indeed the Mayor of New York City during most of the events depicted in the film. After the review was published, the following passage was highlighted by many gay blogs:
That Larry Kramer, the man who called Koch out publicly so many times and was reduced to merely a name the pol-turned-critic read in a New York Times review of the film, should be getting an honor from the President was seen as an insult by someone commenting as Kramer on Staley’s reposting of the Koch review.
It is worth pausing on Koch’s description of ACT UP’s actions, which comes above his commendation of Staley, Kramer and company in the review:
Indiewire reached out to Koch to elaborate on his feelings about the film this week, but he responded by saying he had nothing left to say beyond what is in his review.
Koch’s review was not the only surprise. The politics of Andrew Sullivan, the neoliberal gay HIV-positive Daily Beast columnist, are widely understood to be far removed from the kinds of revolutionary actions ACT UP engaged in (in his review, Sullivan explains how his HIV diagnosis pushed him along his own life journey as a writer). He was in New York, though, at the time, and had this to say about ACT UP and the film in his review from the Provincetown Film Festival:
ACT-UP had its problems. It would alienate people unnecessarily; it would polarize; it would disrupt religious services; it could be a parody of p.c. claptrap (some meetings were interminable victim-fests), and tiresomely accuse almost anyone not in ACT-UP of being a murderer (yes, I was busted more than once). And yet all of this was a function of rage and will that was and is inextricable from defeating the plague.
“How To Survive A Plague” is the first documentary that I have seen that does justice to this story of a civil rights movement rising from the ashes of our dead.
So in the end, Sullivan shows respect for the organization’s work.
This weekend, in recognition of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the “Plague” team will be screening the film in more than 100 locations across the country. “Plague” also will be shown at a number of U.S. embassies around the world (especially, following the suggestion of a fan of the film who works in the Albanian embassy, in Eastern Europe) as a part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s initiative to include LGBT rights in human-rights efforts around the world.